The Closing of the English Mind

Censorship is never really a happy thing, but Joan Smith of the Independent points to a couple of incidents that are particularly depressing.

The first has received very little public attention, despite the fact that students who belong to the college’s Atheism, Secularism and Humanism Society were unable to go ahead with a perfectly legal discussion of sharia law. They’d come to Queen Mary, University of London to hear Anne Marie Waters speak on behalf of the One Law For All campaign, when an angry young man entered the lecture theatre. He stood at the front and used his mobile phone to film the audience, claiming he knew where they lived and would track them down if a single negative word was said about the Prophet. The organisers informed the police and the meeting cancelled.

The fact that in a democratic country a religious extremist is able to frighten anyone into calling off a meeting is shocking – and so is the lack of a public outcry about this egregious example of intimidation and censorship. Tellingly, what has grabbed media attention is the second incident, when a secularist organisation at University College, London came under attack for publishing an image on its Facebook page of ‘Jesus and Mo’ having a drink together. The Muslim group that wants to ban the image got a sympathetic hearing in the media, despite arguing openly for censorship. Extremist websites, meanwhile, reacted with the fanatical language that so often appears on such sites: ‘May Allah destroy these creatures worse than dogs,’ wrote one blogger.

Via Nick, who adds that ‘I heard on Thursday night that one of the UCL secularists had gone into hiding in fear of his life.’

Why are these reports particularly depressing? Because they happened on campus. Universities are supposed to be places of freedom and fun. But for many students, undergraduate life seems to be increasingly difficult.

Last year Goldsmiths fine art student Noam Edry made ‘Conversation Pieces: Scenes of Unfashionable Life’; a conceptual show based on her experiences at the university. Here she describes a general atmosphere of conformity, intimidation and groupthink.

In the first year at Goldsmiths I lay low, I tried fitting in, I refused to make work about my Israeli identity or anything that had to do with it. But it was simply not good enough. Because I was constantly confronted with questions, accusations, labels. It would happen on the way back from a party or over a casual cup of coffee. I saw more posters and protests and boycotts slandering my home, the place that made me who I am, a place that was barely recognisable in those posters. I saw the crass misrepresentation of my region and its de-legitimisation on a daily basis and I felt powerless. I did not have the words, I did not have the flashy slogans and the fashionable labels.

When I attended a meeting of the Palestine Twinning Campaign at Goldsmiths I felt like it was 1939 all over again. I was expecting a real dialogue but instead they were calling for academic boycotts of Israel, they were rallying young students who were desperate to be passionate about something to silence people like me; to silence artists and intellectuals who believe in human beings and mutual tolerance, who are the real hope for peace and for a bright future. I was horrified. What next? Would they start burning Israeli books?

Minorities can face hassle, ostracisation and even outright, racially aggravated thuggery. Most students, as Smith’s examples show, have to deal with the fact that there are certain ideologies that can’t be questioned or challenged.

In the New Humanist, Paul Sims writes that ‘The manner in which [the UCL story] has developed over the past week suggests that there is a degree of pressure on atheist, humanist and secular societies at universities to moderate and censor what they do in order to avoid causing offence to religious groups.’ The case of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab should have taught UCL authorities that it’s not a good idea to give extremism a free pass.

This is fucked up. The majority of people go to university because they want to read books, have a good time and say what they feel. It’s supposed to be an open environment free from censorious traditionalism – god knows there is enough of that outside the academy gates. You shouldn’t have to walk on eggshells for puritan gatecrashers.

It’s time to kick fundamentalism off British campus.

Update: I have been reliably informed, by Richard Gold of Engage, that Noam Edry is a woman. I have changed the pronouns and apologise to Ms Edry.

(Image: New Humanist)

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